FREELAND, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — The number of patients waiting for a life-saving organ transplant is staggering.
Gift of Life Donor Program reports 112,000 people nationally are on the waiting list including many who’ve been waiting for several years.
The need for what many say is the ultimate act of human kindness is as great as ever. As Eyewitness News Reporter Mark Hiller explains, a Luzerne County priest who was considered generous in life is among those who in death gave the greatest gift of all.
“He was just a very good, genuine, spiritual person,” said Janet Drumn.
Cal Herring added, “He always wanted to make sure that everyone was taken care of.”
Joe Stepansky said, “Even when he was a kid he had that giving nature.”
They all spoke of 50-year-old Gary Mensinger — a man whose titles included priest, councilman and animal advocate.
“It’s amazing how many people he actually touched in his life,” said Mr. Stepansky who is Chief of Freeland Fire Department.
Growing up in the same town, Chief Joe Stepansky’s friendship with Fr. Gary became cemented when they rose through the fire department’s ranks as junior firefighters.
“A person like Fr. Gary is definitely… there’s a set of shoes that I’m not sure that could ever be refilled,” Chief Stepansky said.
Freeland Firefighter Cal Herring knew Fr. Gary practically all of his life.
“We always called him the consciousness of the department. He was always here when things were difficult,” Mr. Herring said.
Fr. Gary served as the department’s chaplain while following his calling in life.
“Well, this is when he was ordained,” said Ms. Drumn while showing a photo of her brother’s 1968 ordination when he became a Byzantine Catholic Priest.
Ms. Drumn added, “He said he’s doing the work he’s always dreamed of doing. He wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else. So he was very happy as a priest.”
As pastor of St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Church, Pittston and St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, Swoyersville Fr. Gary also served as spiritual leader and board member for Tracey’s Hope Hospice Care Program and Rescue for Domestic Animals.
Its CEO Denise Kumor said, “Animals were so special to this man. And I swear sometimes he could talk to them.”
Fr. Gary adopted his beagle Rosie in 2013 rescuing her from a life groomed to be a bait dog.
“He knew her story and he wanted her,” said Ms. Kumor.
Fr. Gary’s beloved Rosie died last October just six weeks before a massive heart attack claimed his life.
“When they approached us at the hospital about the organ donation, we knew that that’s what he definitely would have wanted to help people that way,” said Ms. Drumn who is Fr. Gary’s sister.
Philadelphia-based Gift of Life Donor Program acknowledged Fr. Gary’s last act on earth.
Describing that gift her son gave, 91-year-old Helen Mensinger said, “He would be thrilled. I know he would be. There was nothing he liked better than helping people.”
Both of Fr. Gary’s kidneys went to men in their 50s which means they will no longer have to undergo kidney dialysis. And Fr. Gary’s corneas were also harvested and restored the precious gift of sight to a 43-year-old recipient.
“How do you put a value on human life? It’s a tremendous gift that he gave,” said Gift of Life Donor Program Vice President of Clinical Services Richard Hasz.
Gift of Life reports roughly 5,000 people in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware are currently on the waiting list not knowing if they’ll ever get the organ or tissue they need to benefit or, perhaps, save their lives.
“And that’s really the crisis, the public health crisis that we’re dealing with on an everyday basis,” added Mr. Hasz.
Life goes on without Fr. Gary. When asked if it feels like he carries Fr. Gary with him, Chief Stepansky fought back tears and said “All the time. All the time.”
Mrs. Mensinger added, “He gave me a lot of happy memories.”
But knowing what was gained by Fr. Gary’s “final blessing” eases some of the sting of such a great loss.
“It gives us great comfort to know that,” said Ms. Drumn.
Fr. Gary’s family has been invited to the Gift of Life Donor Program’s “Life and Legacy Celebrations” later this year.
The ceremony pays tribute to deceased donors and recognizes their generous gift of life.